Shhh… Be Still

Photography © by Andy Coan

Silence is not just golden, it’s essential.

“Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10) is a directive from on high.

I am an unlikely candidate to deliver such a message as my former grade school and high school teachers can attest. They frequently moved me around on their seating charts in search of students who would not indulge my propensity for conversation. Being the friendly sort, I made friends with those around me and I liked to talk with my friends.

I’m still not the quiet sort, but I’ve come to see the value of silence, particularly in church. Especially in church. As a daily churchgoer, I’ve attended Mass in many cities and states, on vacations, speaking engagements, and visiting family. Occasionally, I come across a congregation that treats their church like an auditorium; acting as if they are waiting for a basketball game to begin. Since it seems that the mass renovations (no pun intended) of Catholic churches resulted in gathering spaces as accessories to Church buildings, I don’t understand how it is that the visiting moved into the sacred spaces.

A Place and a Time

Loud talking, laughing, and strutting should be done somewhere else, like for instance, the gathering space! Hello? Do the chatties not remember why their parish had fundraisers and why Mass was held for many months in a gymnasium until construction of the gathering space was complete?

When I was a girl, churches were quiet. I know that’s “old people’s speak”, but the fact was that everyone knew they were entering the house of God. Walking into church meant leaving the everyday world behind and entering into God’s vestibule – the place where he comes to us and we come to him. Even whispering beyond just a short, essential message was frowned upon.  Yes, things have changed in many ways, but our need remains for quiet time to connect with God and prepare to enter into the sacred mysteries of Mass. Listening to the chatter of others is not conducive to embarking on such a spiritual exercise.

If the congregation is chatty before Mass, I can pretty much guarantee things are going to get worse after the priest gives the final blessing and the deacon dismisses us, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” It’s over, so people assume social time should resume. Except not! Many people want a moment to kneel and pray, to reflect on the Mass and the fact that they just received Jesus in the Eucharist. The church should be a good place to do it.

One summer while at a family reunion in Michigan, my husband and I chanced upon such a congregation. Praying before and after Mass was next to impossible. When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the pastor telling him I found it very hard to pray in his church. I heard about Jack just getting out of the hospital and Joyce’s plans for her flower garden, but what I yearned to hear was silence.

The Value of Quiet

The poet, Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, 1831, expounded on the virtues of silence:

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule… Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”

I am not an old grouch who frowns at babies and shakes my finger at little children.  Truthfully, I tune out most of the babbling of little ones during Mass, short of blood curdling screams or a toy truck inadvertently flung across two pews. It’s just that I can’t concentrate on prayer when Bill and Sam talk loudly about the afternoon football game or Hilda tells Samantha that JCPenny’s sale ends on Tuesday. I’m easily distracted. Most of us are.

For the record, if you belong to a chatty Church, know that the loud visiting in the body of the Church is not the norm for most parishes. At least I personally don’t come across it very often and I have been to Churches in a large number of states. So if your congregation talks a lot in Church, they are behaving badly and everyone else isn’t doing it.

If it applies to you, just stop. I know it’s a hard habit to stop. We all enjoy seeing friends and fellow parishioners. We are a Church family, after all.  But you are in God’s house and should quiet your mind and spirit. Don’t talk with the people around you, talk with God in heaven.

Once Mass starts, you will enter into public worship and be present at the re-presentation of the Christ giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist. These are divine moments of grace.  It’s before and after that we should have some moments of silence to be in the presence of God.  Even if you don’t personally want to spend some time with God yourself, at least have the courtesy not to interfere with that experience for others.  Sharing the secret ingredient in last night’s sloppy Joe recipe or commenting on the changing weather forecast, etc, is not important enough to crowd out God’s time with his people.

If you are a part of a noisy congregation, I know one quiet soul is not going to get the message across and catch on.  At least don’t contribute to the noise. Pray and look for opportunities to encourage others to treat Church time with quiet respect. Talk with your pastor and like-minded others about this issue. Messages in church newsletters, appeals from the pulpit and announcements in bulletins might help.  These are just suggestions.  Since my home church is relatively quiet, it’s only infrequently that I happen upon a talkative congregation.  Whatever measures you take, you will be showing love and respect to both neighbor and God.  And that is something to get quiet about!

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